Defense of Online Learning

Back in the day Online Learning in Higher Education was a rather niche topic, reserved mostly for IT staff, education innovation experts and instructional designers. It was part of the strategically applied R&D of some of the most forward looking universities (including my own!) with an eye to the long term future. Since March 2020, and the forced use of digital tools, however, the majority of the academic world, including students, has suddenly developed a dominant opinion on Online Learning. The general concensus seems to be that it is bad and therefor it should be ditched as soon as possible.

There are valid reasons why this misconception took root. Many students experienced loneliness and detachement despite doing well in their grades. There are serious concerns about their current mental well being. Teachers have rediscovered that social interaction, in addition to sending out information, is the core of an academic learning community and realise they need F2F education for this reason. Human contact facilitates discussions and deeper learning, especially around creative or sensitive topics, preferably in smaller active groups. Practical education (in labs for instance) took a severe blow, as they could not always be recreated online with the existing tools, creating delays in study programs.

Sadly though, despite the fact we are dealing with a targetgroup that knows the value of research, the “online learning is bad” theory is not evidence based, but rather emotional outbursts of disgust aimed at the entire experience of the pandemic, and the way digital tools have been put to use in that crisis. Yes, the experienced drawbacks are severe, and some things will always be F2F, nor will any expert in Online Learning deny that. However in defense of Online Learning I would like to point out why some of the hastily drawn conclusions are based on Emergency Remote Teaching, and not Online Learning. Words and definitions matter a great deal in this conversation.

Emergency Remote Teaching is not Online Learning

Emergency Remote Teaching is the sudden (in one week or less) adaptation of digital tools to teach material previously designed for F2F education. Some material is not suited, or the learning objectives and associated activities are not adjusted (enough) to being online. Platforms and tools might not be used to full effect by either teacher or student because they are new to them. Some universities have managed to provide some training, or provide didactical information, but never enough, for time is at a premium in the pressurized environment that are modern universities. The lack of infrastructure and accessbility creates a bigger divide for vulnerable students. In March 2020 Higher Education was thrown into the deep sea without preperation and had to learn to tread water on the go.

In contrast Online Learning requires:

  • an instructional design of learning objectives & activities that carefully manages the 5 stages of learning, including overcoming the first technical hurdles and socializing to create trust in a safe learning environment where students engage each other in learning communities (not providing footnotes here, but check the work of Gilly Salmon, as well as the Community of Inquiry and you might also want to check my course on communities which is fully sourced).
  • understanding of platforms and other tools to maximize its use, and then making sure staff and students also familiarize themselves with these platforms and tools.
  • a media production that takes more time and planning than creating a powerpoint or checking last years notes the day before. Even experienced online teachers take more time creating a video, but also consider media like podcasting, infographics, games etc. Material that will need maintenance, including updating the content.
  • digital skills of students in dealing with for instance asynchronous discussions and annotations in forums and other text based tools, reviewing their peers, writing blog posts or creating their own media.
  • Regular formative testing to see if concepts have stuck, not just one big summative exam
  • The use of data analytics, for instance to see which part of the course students review more often (are they struggling?), who might benefit from a personal email offering help to prevent drop out and more.
  • Investment in both hardware (laptops, webcams) and software (video tools, collaboration & social tools), and above all a good IT infrastructure both in university buildings and at places were staff and students live such as WiFi as well as providing standard captions to video and podcasting.

Do you see the difference? Pandemics are emergencies that create less than ideal circumstances. A lot of the experienced drawbacks could have been prevented if we, the world wide academic community, had more time beforehand, or during the crisis. We did the best we could with limited resources, but it was not enough. I am deeply saddened that this seems to have given such a mistaken impression of what Online Learning could offer an university in the form of Blended Learning: a best of both worlds that universities should consider as part of their digital transformation. And speaking of which , I can see a new confusion coming up ….

Hybrid Learning is not Blended Learning

Hybrid Learning is the synchronous teaching of lectures or seminars to more than one group of students at the same time. That could be fully F2F with students in two classrooms, or partially F2F with one group of students at home, while the other group sits in a large lecture hall. Tools might aid the teacher, as well as having a teaching assistant or moderator present for those joinining online to encourage their participation. The main challenge for the teacher is dividing attention between the groups, making sure each gets an equal learning experience. Tools like videowalls, chats etc must be learned by all participants. The main drive behind hybrid learning is providing a classroom social experience to as many students as possible, while dealing with a scale problem.

The essence of Blended Learning is that it is a mix of asynchronous and synchronous teaching, including F2F teaching. That is to say, you flip the normal big lecture hall model and all the knowledge sending by the teacher is done beforehand (just like a handbook, but using a variety of media, and potentially some formative testing, most of it digital in the Learning Management System), and the classtime is instead done in small groups where students actively engage with each other and the material, for instance by discussions, creating something together or reviewing each others work. In this model potentially you keep standard lectures, if you still need them, fully online, but practical education and seminars are on campus. The active learning creates better learning outcomes, but students might resist active participation as it requires a bigger time investment from them and it is something that is not usually taught in secondary education so the concept is unfamiliar. The main drive behind Blended Learning is quality of education.

In other words, Hybrid Learning is a pale imitation of Blended Learning due to its focus on synchronous teaching in large groups, and needs an investment in extra tooling. From a didactical viewpoint Blended Learning is to be preferred, but in practice we are still in a crisis and Hybrid Learning may be what we end up with for now. Universities like to avoid the H-word because they know it is a raw deal.

Digital Transformation: the way to the future

To conclude: in the coming 5 to 10 years, universities will have to ask themselves: what does a digital university look like? What do we want to keep, and what do we want to avoid, for the sake of a quality education? How can we both keep the added value of universities and scale all activities that we are involved with right now? What kind of infrastructure is needed for that? Some suggestions summarized:

  • strong IT infrastructure both on hardware and software, which should be as flexible as possible to meet workfloor demand (which will continue to demand restructuring of university procedures).
  • dedicated support with a wide variety of expertise for the workfloor organized in a flexible, non-bureaucratic manner, putting teachers and students front of mind (rather than, say, budget)
  • an open, transparant, collaborative academic community supported by IT
  • a focus on accessibility and equity of the digital learning environment.
  • a conversation on digital privacy and digital ethics, to allow for data analytics to be responsibly employed at universities.
  • focusing on the training of digital skills that both teachers and students need (which is not the same as labour market skills or the dreaded 21st century skills)

Online Social Mores

If there has been a thing that as been fundamental in teaching other people how to moderate an online community, it has been talking about social mores. It is an ancient word, and I only know about it because I studied at such a traditional university like Leiden University. However, it is very fundamental.

So, first of all some theory about communities. David McMillan talked about how to define communities, pinpointing  the important elements of the sense of any community, online or not, as membership, personal investment, social norms, trade and a shared social connection through symbols and storytelling . Watch this video for some more background. Howard Rheingold defined this for the online environment, with his famous definition that defines a social contract online. Want to learn more? Check out my free online workshop “Build Your Online Community”. The summary? You don’t have a community unless you have some norms that people agree to.

Now, having covered the academic basics, can we move to the fundamentals? In all places where we interact as a community, we need to reinforce our social mores, which in effect are our norms & values. That means, yes, defending academic free speech. It also means being stern when there are violations of the academic methodology. You are out of turn when you use logical fallacies for instance. In a pub we would throw beer at you, but in the digital space that tends to ruin your laptop. Hence online community guidelines, or social media codes, or what have you. They simply translate old mores to new ones that can be implemented online.

Is it normal for teachers or management to check if people stay within boundaries? Yes, absolutely. That is not infringing on your rights, it is only checking them for validity. We do that all the time. If you have a student stending up during your campus lecture, sprouting nonsense and calling names, you’d have the janitor remove them, and rightly so, for disrupting education. The same is true for similar instances at campus, whether that is during a lecture, or during a more grey scaled whats app group clearly associated with the university and people are made to feel uncomfortable in an unacceptable way. Mores apply everywhere where the community is.

The past informs the future: 8 years of Education Innovation

It started with a January mail of the director of Academical Affairs, sharing with his team the top ten most important people in Higher Ed of 2012, which included the Khan Academy. I shared a TED Talk of the Khan Academy with the team. The ICTO programme manager was drawn by the algorythmn in several more videos and found Daphne Koller, founder of Coursera and was intrigued by the potential.

Important? Yes, because serendipty is a strong force in education innovation, as is collaboration. Following this online exploration there was a skype call with the very accessible professor Koller of Stanford, and the request to all members of Academical Affairs to follow a couple of MOOCs and share our experiences. I personally followed the Gamification MOOC of professor Kevin Werbach of the Wharton School of Business, among royalty of MOOC stars. We all reported back. It was fun, exciting and new. We had no idea how this could be useful. There were no deliverables. No reports. Yet the ICTO manager decided on this basis to work with the Centre for Innovation on a small pilot.

That summer Leiden launched its own MOOC, after agreeing to a partnership with Coursera. We reached 40K students, and it made national newspaper headlines. My personal contribution was moderating the forums with that first MOOC on EU Law, having some free time on my hands. Already that fall, I was sitting down with prof Bakker and his assistant Jeanine de Roy-van Zuidewijn about a shared vision on community guidelines for a Terrorism course and a moderating team. Eventually this collaboration landed me a full time job at the Centre for Innovation in 2015 both as a project coordinator and more importantly the resident expert on platforms, moderation and community management. I still hold those expertise hats and they have served us well in the pandemic year of 2020.

So what have I learned in those 8 years that could help us going forward into 2021 and further?

  1. It is never clear beforehand how certain explorations will benefit the university. Instead genuine curiosity and willingness to be open to anything are beneficial in the long run to our alma mater. Out of 5 pilots, 4 might die, and 1 might be brilliant for further exploration. Any pilot might build out to a major programme and become influential.
  2. Do not let contracts and task descriptions limit you. Willingness by the bureaucracy to be flexibible how to interpret my tasks (from management assistant, to moderator, to project lead) helped transition the team from pilot to more structral positions. The only caution: be sure to introduce equity when determining new fuctions. It should free people, not introduce new injustices.
  3. Fail Fast. I never learned more than from when things went wrong, just doing stuff even if I wasn’t 100% certain how. The Centre for Innovation provides an environment where you dive into a project, just doing it , and allowing projects to be adjusted and updated as you find them. Made a mistake? Great, evaluate it, learn from it. No wagging fingers, provided you stayed within some boundaries.
  4. From a minimal viable product, through several iterations to a better product. Sounds Agile, but it is also known as the core of quality assurance: Plan Do Check Act or the Cirkle of Deming. Instead of waiting to get the full picture (which may never be gained), jumping in and start learning from practice. Pushing forward to improve quality is the way to go.
  5. The future is so bright, I gotta wear shades. It is completely unknown where education innovation will take us next. It is, however, no doubt very exciting.

Let’s stop with Innovation Bullshit Bingo

I have personally worked in education innovation since 2013 and even before was no stranger to strategic discussions on higher education as a board member of the Leiden Studentunion among other things. My speciality has become education innovation through digital technology. The year of the MOOC. The death of the MOOC. The rediscovery of the MOOC, I have seen it all.

So you would think I am very much in favour of thought leadership on:

  • throwing post-its at every problem, quick design sessions without depth, cheap agile references
  • disruption of Higher Ed through digital technology, with the destruction of universities as we know them imminent
  • solving any workforce or scaling issue of education by going digital, now more than ever
  • providing free online education to all because we already paid for this through taxes

You would be wrong. All those concepts are mainly empty, re-used to fit very particular strategic meanings of the person wielding them (such as budget cuts, or receiving attention in strategy meetings), and seldom for the general quality of education. It is neither teacher nor student centered. It is very clear that both of them want, above all, human contact and if at all possible face to face real contact.

The bottomline is: online or blended learning does not reduce teacher-student time needs, it just reshapes it. In fact, when you start to apply digital technologies you will have to invest time and energy to get it going before it becomes a way of life. It takes very deliberate design of every aspect of learning, including informal social contacts.

It is not all bleak. There are people who actually match evidence based, data driven insights with talent and in true co-creation with teachers creating education that really bring quality to a next level. I am sincere when I say I believe in blended learning, XR for learning and the concept of life long learning, and the way that digital technology helps that along, as a tool, not a goal. Centre for Innovation of Leiden University is one of those places were we genuinely and earnestly work on those themes for the greater good. I have not lost my faith in that.

However, I think that some innovators take the easy way out by just blabbering their thought leadership in the direction of what those in power want to hear, when it is not what higher education needs. It is very persuasive to think technology will solve all the ills of society, that it will reduce cost AND be a positive benefit at the same time. Win-win, what is not to like? Except that it is bullshit. The data is not there. Well designed online learning costs aprox 6-9 months of development and continued upkeep for years on end.

That doesn’t stop it from being a temptation for politicians and their assistants, and you keep seeing attempts at floating “a new normal where innovation solves everything”. Well, no. Not even if you write it into numerous columns in national newspapers. Real innovation takes hard work, with your feet in the clay of actual education, standing side by side with teachers.

You have the innovation bullshit bingo players, and then you have people with actual talent. It pays to mind the difference when deciding to follow up on their advice.